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Humanity is Killing the World’s Wildlife Populations, Not ‘Capitalism’

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Cocked the gat to her head, and pulled back the shirt cover

But what he saw made him start to cringe and stutter

Cause he was starring into the eyes of his own mother

— Immortal Technique, Dance With The Devil 

“Man is a species-being, not only because he practically and theoretically makes the species – both his own and those of other things – his object, but also – and this is simply another way of saying the same thing – because he looks upon himself as the present, living species, because he looks upon himself as a universal and therefore free being.”

— Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto 

“To all those who still wish to talk about man, about his reign or his liberation, to all those who still ask themselves questions about what man is in his essence, to all those who wish to take him as their starting-point in their attempts to reach the truth, to all those who, on the other hand, refer all knowledge back to the truths of man himself, to all those who refuse to formalize without anthropologizing, who refuse to mythologize without demystifying, who refuse to think without immediately thinking that it is man who is thinking, to all these warped and twisted forms of reflection we can answer only with a philosophical laugh – which means, to a certain extent, a silent one.” 

— Michel Foucalt, The Order Of Things 

This article is a response to an piece by the name same (get it?): Capitalism is killing the world’s wildlife populations, not ‘humanity’. 

Everybody with a vape to stomp on these days has a critique of capitalism. It’s about as predictable as a hipster’s gripes about gentrification in their favorite hangout spots. How did so many hipsters get here? (I thought I snuck in). Gulp. Yet it’s worse than hipsters now, far worse.

The hipster (who was at least nice) has now been replaced by the socialist anti-hipster hipster, who is grumpy, resentful, and (to no fault of his own doing) even poorer and more pretentious than his hipster alter ego. I’m afraid that this generation’s Punk is Marx. Now, I love Marx. He’s as much a God as Ramones in my opinion. But he’s the sort of God that develops from a generation that is venereally repressed, or at least venereally stunted, and needs a release from an existence that is basically based entirely in status, appearance, city life, posturing, identity, stress, work, isolation and economic insecurity.

Most of the anti-capitalist talk of today works just as capitalism originally did: as a justification for humans to claim superiority over the earth and not hold ourselves accountable for the horrifying things we do to her. Humanity is capitalism, and capitalism is humanity. To save our planet we must do a whole lot more than find our own subject relation in the world. We must assert radically, as Karl Marx once did, that capitalism is a natural progression of humanity. And as Marx said, we must not only seek to understand this world, but to change it.

As long as capitalism remains a primarily exterior force, we will remain rooted in the passivity that our screen age lays out for us. Where we can consume everything, hate everything, blame everything, but never become something greater, precisely because we don’t believe in anything, except maybe ourselves and avocado toast. Coming to age now is a generation that snottily dismisses God (and all those who believe in him) as a construct. A generation that believes in nothing besides the nihilism of the world as embodied by late-stage capitalism. The truth is that throughout human history, life has been challenging, miserable, unjust, and primarily hopeless.

The inequality in this day and age may indeed be unique, but the suffering is not. Suffering and struggle has been the way of humans and other species during most days, for most times. The only striking thing about this day and age is two factors: 1. the development of the modern subject, who has not only an ego, but an entitlement to ownership of the world around him. 2. the fall of this subject into a place of powerless within the context of mass inequality during the stage of neoliberal late capital. These two factors do create an inconsistency, a heartbroken and demented subject, as best embodied by Donald Trump.

While many may have a critique of capitalism, most critics remain first and foremost as ‘exterior’ critics, unwilling to confront humanity’s central role in the destruction of the ecosystem. Ironically, and in this case, tragically, we fail to see that the shift in the subject from one with the earth to owner of the earth was in fact formed through capitalism, and has only got more out of proportion as capitalism has grown.

Therefore, any critique of capitalism that does not take into account humanity’s relationship with the earth not only fails to consider the earth, it fails to consider capitalism in an honest way. Separating capitalism from humanity is ludicrous. Supposing that some sort of alternative reality will come as prophecy as soon as the means of production are seized forgets one crucial component: what is modern production doing to the planet? The mentality of “it will all be better once we are in charge” is the exact same philosophy that the most cold-hearted capitalists have and it is the exact mentality they all want us to have. It is exactly this competition for the most worthy rulers of society that takes away all those without voices: especially nature, but also other marginalized groups.

As communist superstar Son D. Pham said: saying it’s capitalism’s fault and not humanity’s is like saying I eat burgers, not food. There is a reality we are living in and it is ecological collapse fueled by human activity. As humans, we have systematically ignored and pillaged our earth for our own gain. The vast majority of humanity does not consider earth as its equal, let alone the source of our own life. Ancient societies often would worship the earth, as a God or a parent, or a smartphone (to relate to people today).

Today all religion is being increasingly seen as a joke as we become a society that believes it knows everything. We believe that we are superior to those falling for fake news. We believe we are superior to those who believe in a “simpler life” of providing for their family under the means of capitalism. We believe we are superior to all people who believe in anything other than base cynicism. And, above all, we believe we are superior to nature as we boldly assert that we would have saved the world, if only we had control.

Nature is passing us by, appearing only as an occasional horror story—another weapon for the apocalypse destiny promoted by the dystopian novel, the superhero movie, and every art project today. The sense that nature is God, is our literal mother, is losing its way. Gone now from her breast, we forget it is our mother who feeds, houses and clothes us. We forget that we are merely a construct of her own creation, a blip on her radar, our consciousness only developed through the sounds she gave us, our superiority only fabricated through the apparent faculty she has given us.

I use the “mother earth” phrase, and I hope to clarify why. In our language earth has been classified as female precisely because the male language sees her as secondary and subordinate. Humans see earth as passive and as incapable of being the subject in and of herself. With that in mind, as we reclaim earth as the origin, or even the God, we would do well to keep the female pronoun, for precisely the opposite reasons that this pronoun first came about.

We forget that as many meanings for life we may develop, as many theories of justice, economically or otherwise, we may imagine to be true, none are possible without her. And that our own existence is extremely unlikely, and perhaps even false. And that in fact, given the many universes out there, we may not even be much at all. And actually, if one were to measure intelligence based on other criteria, we would be nothing.

It is only through consciousness, itself an unlikely, and likely highly misleading reality, that masquerades as meaningful, potentially just, and omnipotent only because we know nothing else. It is precisely because of our lack of knowledge that humanity can see itself as all-powerful. It is precisely because we have forgotten the earth that we may now claim a reality outside of her. If we could see right in front of us, we could see where we are going. Now there are a million things to say, and a million different ways to say them, but each branch out further from the truth.

What makes us so certain that we dare to be atheist? And I’m not talking strictly religiously, either. I am talking about that position of believing that humans, especially rich humans, control everything, from destiny to purpose to the future (for mother earth will get the last laugh, don’t forget that). Was it the airplane that created these capital worshipping socialists? Or maybe, just Uber Eats?

What made us so certain that the world was just a resource to be exploited or taken care of? What made us so sure she is something to be managed, solved and explained through the language we speak but she does not hear? That old riddle of a tree falling in the empty woods not making a sound could be revised to say that a human being bleating about capitalism is just not heard by hers truly?

Look at yourself a moment. Those pathetic hands and feet. Your nose, which maybe social media has inspired to be a different shape in your dreams. What made one so sure that the meaning of this life, after all, was a justice by humanity and for humanity? Whether you are a socialist (Marx is seriously worth a read!), or not.

The question, and I think we must cut deeper than the words neoliberal or late-stage capital here. The question must be: how do we remember earth again? Run scared from consumerism or technology or any of the other trendy problems all we want, but are we remembering? Memory is formed not through consciousness, I mean not really. It’s a feeling. You remember people who you don’t have a single memory with, simply because you have been there before. Just as a plant or an animal has been there before. And the earth, we must remember her like this. We must remember the soil between our toes.

Saving the earth will mean dumping everything in our society now. We must again live in a sustainable way, a way unrecognizable to most of us. But again I wonder about the economic solutions being purposed. I draw hope from talks of a Green New Deal. And I like the idea that so many young people are socialists, at least by name. But I wonder too, is any of that enough? Or is any of that really very convincing? Because aren’t we all gone now, anyways? Aren’t we all swept up in the mentality of capitalism? The consciousness of capitalism? We are there. Often critically, often screaming to reshape our lives in radical ways, but, we remain, most of us at least, in capitalism. Trapped in capitalism.

Donald Trump, his ways, his ways of hating everything and becoming distant and self-obsessed and finding a way of seeing the world that deals with his own despair, that is what is going on. There has to be a way to deal with the despair, the hopelessness. Some way to again claim agency.

But is that anyway out? Is controlling this ecosystem destroying society—whether it is equal among us conscious beings or not—is that really the way to go? Should we really be looking for ways to expand our own indulgences in the time when we are draining the earth of all she can give us? The skeptic inside of me says humans are merely turning to socialism now because capitalism has failed each of us individually. This new rise of socialism may not be a communal uprising, but groups of frustrated individuals looking for a capitalist way to rise up and become successful in a capitalist way through socialist means.

The solutions purposed to the present ecological crisis are post-capitalism solutions. They involve the market—they just involve control of it. It was the development of the market (not necessarily the inequalities within the profits) that killed life on earth. It was the ever-growing production itself, not just the distribution of it, that resulted in the ecological crisis we face today. It is precisely that the progression of humanity that has rendered the earth as merely a product for consumption and ownership. The argument we have these days is whether or not the ownership should be for the few or the many. Forget owning the means of production, how about getting rid of production all together?

Forget it all I say. Forget everything humanity has taught us so far, for all we know, however much we may like it or hate it now, is a death wish for these species and all others. Become exactly who we were made to be, biologically that is, not metaphysically. There are specific ways for this species to survive, and specific ways for this species to die. The basic story of our species is this: we have chosen individual pleasure in the short term, and it will eventually doom us in the long term. The bigger takers (far bigger takers) are the rich, and they deserve the bulk of the blame. But overthrowing the rich will only get us so far. It’s a narrow viewpoint that forgets who we are and where we came from.

And despite us becoming so entranced by our own little theories, whether they be capitalism, Marxism or something different all together, we remain worthless in any real sense of the term. All of us, especially the rich ones, are but humble servants of mother earth, and if she wishes to end us tomorrow, she certainly could. For one reason or another, we are still here. I don’t like being thankful for anything near the time of Native American Genocide Celebration season, held on the fourth Thursday of November. But, if I were to claim thankfulness for anything, it would be that mother earth gave me an existence, and made me aware of this existence, even if I am not aware of much else. One can say that is capitalism, not humanity, that promotes self-interest, but that would be selfishly running from the problem. Then again, what else are humans good for?

The article I am responding to at first glance seemed quite radical to me. It contained refreshing class analysis, pointing to the richest people doing the bulk of the consuming with the poorest people feeling the blunt of its effects. I agree that the “blame” assigned should be just as, if not more unequal than our current wealth inequality. An inequality that is as disgraceful as it is heartbreaking. But all that’s pretty boring, isn’t it? And not very helpful. The rich stink. More or less every voice left of center says that these days. And many, many even claim the coveted socialist title.

I don’t have much interest in that socialist title, and that’s probably because every relationship I’ve had with a self-identifying socialist has been quite unpleasant. I’m not exactly sure why that is, but very likely, it is my fault. And even the socialists I don’t know, well, very unpleasant. They leave something sour in your mouth. I hear this wasn’t always the case.

I think mostly it’s just a feeling of being lost in this day and age. God knows the rest of the political spectrum is giving us no favors.

I only include that anecdote because I am finding that anti-capitalism, as an ideology at least, is failing to explain our present state. Keep in mind that Barack Obama is basically called a socialist by the right and that most people believe that. And then Bernie Sanders is called a socialist by the left and most people believe that too.

So I don’t know what to do with this rising hatred of the rich. It’s welcome, for obvious reasons. But it’s a hatred that can be turned on itself, on the working class, and on the earth. And Donald Trump, we see his rise. Basically anti-corruption in rhetoric. Called a populist, and that may not be entirely accurate (simply based on polling numbers by class). Still, he taps into something here. It’s a hatred of neoliberalism, for good reason. Neoliberalism has effectively left all working people in a state of precariousness, nearing collapse both economically and emotionally.

The author who blames capitalism not humanity (Anna Pigott), let’s give her credit. She takes what is a mainstream media thesis and subverts it. The mainstream media blames humanity (speaking generally) and Pigott blames capitalism specifically for the ecological state we are in. Broadly speaking, of course, Pigott is right. The current system is capitalism and the current system is death. But couldn’t we all agree that basically the whole world is capitalism at this point and it would be more accurate to call this a stage in history where capitalism is present, as Marx tried to do.

So I’m not sure where one can really untangle the web of humanity’s trajectory and capitalism’s trajectory. Capitalism is our economic system, just as opposable thumbs distinguish our hands. Now, socialists may counter: other systems are possible! Yes, of course! And like Marx, I see socialism as the next step for humanity. And I dare say it would be welcome, hopefully curbing hunger and homelessness and education and everything else. Celebrating the goods of socialism should be done early, and it should be done often, but in this particular column, I’ll just say achieving socialism would be the peak of human civilization, far beyond what capitalism has ever given us.

But here in lies the problem with the Anthropocentrism approach. The precise problem with seeing socialism as the end-all solution is that it basically is a further progression of capitalism. While in present day we live in a world economy owned by the few, and benefit the few, the goal of socialism is basically a democratic capitalism. Ownership and agriculture still exist, but they are by the many for the many, rather than by the many, for the few. Naturally, such an approach would help the environment, as we would become stewards of the entire environment. Presently we more or less operate as stewards of the environment the rich want to protect, which naturally has limits.

In this sense, socialism is the furthest progression of humanity. It makes capitalism, a truly brutal system, democratic and fair. It says that basically, using the wonderful gifts of humans, we can now provide for all humans, not just the few. Today any of the major inventions by private companies use public funding, with private profits. It’s unfair and wrong and largely hidden. And it causes the majority of the world to suffer needlessly. All that is true. But, what really changes when we change that? A lot changes for humans, certainly But does it stop environmentally destructive inventions that benefit the human race? No, of course it doesn’t.

The theory of capitalism is this: if it makes money, it shall succeed. This helps nobody but those making the profit, so it basically has very few winners. Socialism has much loftier goals: social programs to benefit the masses. But let’s keep in mind that more or less all major developments associated with capitalism are in fact done through socialism. It’s all really a mixed economy, with lots of variances. It is through the labor of the public that we get greatness. The myth of the great individual leading societies forward should be debunked. By arguing for socialism above all else we more or less will keep the earth wrecking environmental practices of capitalism simply because capitalism’s exploits have always aimed to reach the masses one way or the other (cheap labor the most common way). There is really very little evidence that a post-capitalism solution would alter our expectations within a capitalist society.

These are expectations that place the earth last. The earth becomes the means to take care of the working class, or a means to take care of the rich. Take your side in the class war.

The only way to make it in this world would be to basically consume as much as a gorilla does now. I mean, really, we should all become gorillas or else the whole planet is doomed.

However, we aren’t doing that. We may do that someday, even if it seems unlikely now. But at this point in time humanity has fallen so far it is difficult to see how the human race ever becomes self-sustainable again.

The human race is reminiscent of wolves bred into lap dogs. While we can rationally trace upgrades in our species, however, these upgrades rely on a specific set of circumstances, and are therefore, unsustainable. Our current needs to survive are highly specific to our time. Soon the resources we reply upon will no longer be here for us to use. Soon things will start to break down. If one puts a lap dog in the forest, they stand no chance, as they have forgotten their instincts—replacing them with now useless information about how to survive in the civilized world. Likewise, us humans have no idea how to survive any longer. We have developed too far, and gone too fast. We have devolved away from both our means and our capacity to survive in a sustainable manner. If we are having any argument at all on these dying days, it is limited to Anthropocentrism. The class struggle. Who will win. Rich humans or poor humans? At this point, it will be neither.

I do want to clarify my disdain for the rich, and I don’t think it is so much for the reason of absolving the poor. The question of guilt and punishment is, after all, a pretty conceptual one, seeing that it always has been, with a few exceptions, the rich who determine the sanctioned narrative of blame, even if they cannot ultimately decide history or truth completely.

Under capitalism, the vast majority of humanity, with a very few rich exceptions, lives more or less in the moment, not as a strategy, but as a necessity to survive, and even if that hurdle is conquered, as a conditioned habit. It can be said, and I believe I am in no position to judge people otherwise, that most of us really cannot afford to have considerations for the coming mass extinction or our role in it. We, of course, cannot afford not to consider it, but here we get into the question of how much agency the average human, most of whom are pretty poor, really has over the future of the world.

This is what I think was Ms. Pigott’s point, a valid and admirable one. And I think if we were to think about our fate in terms of who can afford to change (and therefore who should be most ashamed that they are not), we would point all ten of our fingers at the rich. But that directly supports my point. Humanity really cannot afford to even consider changing at this point. We are so occupied with survival, with getting through the day, paying the bills, etc., We simply have more pressing concerns than the extinction of our planet.

And this could be qualified as a systematic issue. Surely if we all lived comfortably enough to make the proper adjustments, we would indeed be more likely to make them, even if human history has not necessarily proven this point yet. However, this presents a more perplexing paradox, which is that this sort of change is exactly the opposite of what is being purposed. Capitalists most certainly have an interest in expanding materialism, but Marxism itself is an analysis based in materialism, even if Marx himself could make the necessary statements about the false, and even fatal relationship that materialism creates with the earth.

I think the blindness of the modern Marxist subject to itself was seen pretty clearly with the mounting skepticism of Black Friday’s materialism. Now it’s indisputable. Black Friday is a display of materialism in its ugliness form. Denounce materialism all you want but the only thing unique about Black Friday is that everything is on sale. In other words, things are less money. A rich person would have no need for Black Friday, which again brings us to the hilt of materialist criticism in general. It is a criticism only possible if materials are a choice. And for most people going shopping on Black Friday, they shop then because they need the deal, and those of us rich enough to criticize capitalism mostly forget that in the absence of socialism, capitalism acts as the only bread maker—making capitalism even more urgent to abandon.

That criticism aside, there is another one. And this goes beyond need and goes into the way desire has been shaped under capital. We are in the constant state of need for more, and this often works because there is more to offer, and seemingly, more to gain. And Marxism actually fits in with the needs presented here, it just offers a more just way of distributing it.

The concept of basing all happiness on material gains is an irony lost on many Marxists. I’m not sure if they’re wrong, either. But just as capitalism has contradictions, so does Marxism. And while we obviously can achieve these gains for the masses, we should be appalled by the rich stopping this from happening. We absolutely should be appalled. And yet, the goals, the terms of success, are much the same under both contradicting ideologies of Marxism and capitalism. Material gains as justice (either for the ‘fittest’ or for the masses).

Too harsh? Maybe so. And we should not forget that socialism is among the most “green” of theories out there, both in theory and in practice. And yet green acts as a modifier. The subject of the earth is still negated. The earth still acts as a material to provide for humans. There is still no realistic plan to stop the over-consumption of the earth’s resources. And this sadly may especially be true if Marxism actually succeeds in its goals of bettering the masses.

There is no need to choose though. Being environmentally friendly and socialist are very consistent. The point I am making is not so much to change someone’s socialist politics here. I would say I am an aspiring Marxist first, before anything else. The point is rather to change the subject relationship that we have with the mass extinction that is upon us.

As agriculture ballooned, there simply hasn’t been a sustainable, let alone a just, policy towards the earth. And I think if we truly wanted to save the earth, well we would either live like animals again (hardly a socialist thing to do). Or we would figure out a way to all die at once (which is the crude philosophy behind our pick and choose immigration policy). Other options can help, and are welcome and feasible. They won’t save us, and they won’t save most species of the planet. All the same, they may be the best we can do at this time.

Capitalism then is the problem, but only part of it. When Marx writes that man sees himself as “universal and therefore free” it amounts to a species that can reason out capitalism, precisely because we tend to think of ourselves as the subject. A subject destined to control the object, an object who is earth.

What capitalism does is compound the problem. Capitalism justifies this mentality by making all things (including other humans) into objects. There is always a degree of separation within capitalism. A peach is never a peach. A dollar can buy a peach, so therefore a dollar is earned to get the peach, often at the expense of every peach outside the one you are getting.

And capitalism limits the way we think about freedom. Freedom becomes being able to buy things, because this is the way to survive, and after that, the way to achieve an identity. Capitalism never keeps track of what it means for us all to survive, or even for us all to get along.

However, even a more responsible system, well, it’s unclear what exactly it would do to change Marx’s criticism that “man makes other species the object.” That separation is there, with or without, the degree of separation known as money. It arose before money, this separation arose when agriculture did, and money became the way to mediate it.

Capitalism is an expression of humanity’s development of itself as subject. And Marx saw that this was largely hierarchal within the species, as well as outside of it. No other species sees itself as the subject of justice or meaning. Humanity’s treatment of other species is primarily colonial.

As soon as this separation occurs, the child is no longer responsive to the mother. She becomes his to master, to name, and to exploit. As soon as this relationship is formed, money merely acts as a way to manage what the subject acquires. Money, for humans, is meta. Without money, how do we value what we claim is valuable?

What Michel Foucalt recognized was that if a structure of thought cannot be critical of itself, it really is useless outside its own context. I see modern rational human thought to be quite useless in this way. We have now made curbing climate change our new goal, and the reason we have failed is more or less an extension of the climate denialism in the Republican Party. There is a plain refusal to claim responsibility and there is a lack of self-examination.

In The Order of Things Foucault traces the way we began to order things. Foucault writes brilliantly—exposing, questioning and ultimately dethroning the entire premise in which we arrive at all our conclusions. That premise, if I am reading closely enough, largely has to do with this supremacy of humanity—which itself is based on the supremacy of thought, a force that has no ways to exist outside of itself.

It’s a concept highly influenced by Jacques Derrida’s reading of Plato. Essentially, humanity operates on a tautology. Becoming the master of the earth is preposterous precisely because we are of the earth and we rely upon it for our existence. The key to dethroning the master is understanding change, and that based on new circumstances outside of the master’s control, he will fall.

Like all figures who try to become more than what they are, humans will end their tragedy as something far less. We had a chance to exist in this world but we got greedy. We needed more. This is the story of capitalism. However, it’s also the story of humanity. It’s a classic chicken and egg scenario.

When it comes to chicken and egg, the question in the riddle is always which came first. The same may be true for capitalism and humanity. Although no one ever points to the manifest. When the chicken dies, there will be no more eggs. With the mass extinction upon us, this seems like an apt analogy. So, fear not anti-capitalists, this evil system will be dying soon. The autopsy though will read something different than you expected, if it is to be read at all.

It is best to end these sorts of things on a cheery note, so one more time from Michel Foucault: “It is comforting, however, and a source of profound relief to think that man is only a recent invention, a figure not yet two centuries old, a new wrinkle in our knowledge, and that he will disappear again as soon as that knowledge has discovered a new form.”

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Nick Pemberton writes and works from Saint Paul, Minnesota. He loves to receive feedback at pemberton.nick@gmail.com 

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